Rivendell Academy principal departs mid-year

After checking the name, Rivendell Academy school counselor Nancy Hall hands Principal Keri Gelenian the next diploma during the school's commencement on Saturday, June 10, 2023, in Orford, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

After checking the name, Rivendell Academy school counselor Nancy Hall hands Principal Keri Gelenian the next diploma during the school's commencement on Saturday, June 10, 2023, in Orford, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Keri Gelenian (Courtesy Rivendell Interstate School District)

Keri Gelenian (Courtesy Rivendell Interstate School District) —

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-14-2024 10:01 PM

Modified: 02-16-2024 10:22 AM


ORFORD — Rivendell Academy’s principal and head of schools retired this week. After 14 years, Keri Gelenian’s last day on the job was Monday.

The mid-year retirement comes amid turmoil in the small school community as the board considers plans for closing one of its elementary schools and as teachers and staff report low morale and a lack of responsive leadership.

In addition to Rivendell Academy in Orford, the Rivendell Interstate School District includes Samuel Morey Elementary School in Fairlee and Westshire Elementary School in West Fairlee. In addition to the three towns with schools in them, the district also includes Vershire.

For now, Superintendent Barrett Williams will serve as the acting building administrator for Rivendell Academy, which serves roughly 240 students in grades 6-12. “We hope to work with our faculty and staff to develop an intermediate and a long-term plan,” for the position, Williams said Wednesday.

In a memo to the school district dated Feb. 12, Gelenian wrote: “This memo is to inform you that I will be retiring on June 30th, 2024. I would like to thank the teacher(s) of Rivendell who have worked tirelessly to give their students an excellent education.” Gelenian will continue to receive his $142,290 salary through the end of this school year.

Williams acknowledged that a February departure by an administrator is “unusual” but declined to provide any further detail. “We’re grateful for his years of service to the district,” he said.

Gelenian could not be reached for comment.

Gelenian holds a doctorate in education from Harvard University and was a professor of education at Humboldt State University, then a teacher at an early-college high school in Eureka, Calif., before coming to Rivendell in 2010.

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“Keri is a fearless educator,” former Rivendell Dean of Students Michael Galli, now principal of Warren (N.H.) Village School, said Wednesday. He described Gelenian as passionate about Rivendell’s mission. “At one time there was functioning dialogue between the schools in the district. Keri was fighting to get that back,” Galli said.

In early February, rumors began circulating among Rivendell’s faculty, staff and families that the School Board had declined to renew Gelenian’s contract for the 2024-2025 school year.

At the Feb. 6 district school board meeting, 60 members of the public packed the room and more than 20 people attended online. One by one, teachers, staff members and parents stood before the board to express concerns about the direction of the school district and distress at the prospect of Gelenian leaving.

“After 14 years of service to the community, it appears that the community is preparing to discard him,” Rivendell Academy teacher Kerry Browne said. Forcing Gelenian out “would dissolve the glue that holds this community together.” Brown then returned to his seat to loud applause.

“We wouldn’t be here without Keri,” Orford resident and Rivendell parent Jolene Farmer said. She praised him for helping and supporting her children when they were students.

“There are some dark clouds that are lingering over our place of employment,” Andy Stevenson, first-grade teacher at the Samuel Morey School and vice president of the district’s teacher’s union, said.

In January the district’s teachers union, the Rivendell Education Association, held a “listening tour” that included interviews with 99 members, or just over 95%, of the district’s teachers and staff. The tour was facilitated by the Vermont-National Educational Association and asked respondents to address the challenges and benefits of their work in the district.

The REA submitted a report to the school board in early February that described a school community that felt undervalued by dysfunction and lack of transparency at the administrative levels of leadership.

A common theme throughout the report is uncertainty around the timing of a planned consolidation of elementary schools and what that merger might mean for people’s jobs. That uncertainty is a significant source of anxiety for teachers and staff, the report says.

In November, the Rivendell School Board approved a three-year plan to, first, train teachers in multi-age classroom practices during the 2024-25 school year, then implement multi-age classrooms the following year, and then finally close Samuel Morey Elementary School and send those students to the Rivendell Academy building in Orford.

Williams acknowledged that some confusion had been created in the fall as the board openly discussed the possibility of accelerating the consolidation timeline as part of its budget discussions. Those discussions raised concern among teachers, who worried that without adequate professional development, they would not be able to manage multi-age classrooms effectively.

The board is now looking at the feasibility of closing either Samuel Morey or Westshire elementary schools but, at this time, is committed to the original three-year timeline, Williams said Wednesday.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board passed a $15.9 million budget, which is a nearly 8% increase from last year’s budget. It included the application of $500,000 of surplus revenue. The vote came after a weeklong delay due to uncertainty about the effect of the budget on taxes for each of the district’s four towns.

“Never have we had more of a spread in the impact on taxes across the four towns,” School Board Chairwoman Kathy Hooke said Tuesday. “And never have we had so much uncertainty from both states as to how it might settle out.”

An additional warrant article will allow voters to decide if they want to permanently hold the annual meetings on the fourth Saturday in March at 10 a.m.

The Rivendell Interstate School District will hold its annual meeting this year on Saturday, March 23, at 10 a.m. in the Rivendell Academy gym for all voters residing in the towns of Orford, Fairlee, West Fairlee and Vershire.

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan@vnews.com or 603-727-3208.

CORRECTION: Former Rivendell Dean of Students Michael Galli is now principal of the Warren Village School in New Hampshire. A previous version of this story included an incorrect state for the location of the Warren school.